Before the opening Super 14 round, there were intense concerns in New Zealand that the departure of Crusaders coach Robbie Deans to the Wallabies would lead to the demise of the province that has dominated the tournament.
New boys get off to a flying start
Around Christchurch on Saturday night, Crusaders fans were shouting: "Robbie who?" In Sydney, long-suffering Waratahs supporters were bellowing: "Ewen who?" How soon they forget! Before the opening Super 14 round, there were intense concerns in New Zealand that the departure of Crusaders coach Robbie Deans to the Wallabies would lead to the demise of the province that has dominated the tournament. But no, Todd Blackadder's side won against that most irritating of opponents - the Chiefs- to indicate the Crusaders will again be a Super 14 power.
There were similar worries at the NSW Waratahs where the departure of Ewen McKenzie to Paris was expected to lead to a slump. The outlook for the Waratahs did not look good, as apart from McKenzie being pushed out, their three most important forwards- Daniel Vickerman, Rocky Elsom and David Lyons - had also left for the northern hemisphere. Times looked hard, with an inexperienced coaching team which struggled to lure any notable recruits for 2009.
Luck was required, and that arrived for the new NSW coach Chris Hickey in Wellington on Saturday night, where the Waratahs enjoyed a fortunate win over the Hurricanes. So early joy for newcomers Blackadder and Hickey. And even though Deans is no longer directly involved in the Super 14 - now enjoying the luxury of watching the tournament from the sidelines - he also felt a sense of relief about the first round. Young players he has earmarked for higher Australian honours - such as Waratahs centre Rob Horne - excelled, while his Test captain Stirling Mortlock took another step towards prolonging his international career.
During Australia's end-of-season tour of the northern hemisphere last year, Deans moved the ever-aggressive, ever-energetic Mortlock from No 13 to inside centre, believing that being closer to the action would work in the 31-year-old's favour and help him hang around for the next World Cup in 2011. There were some hideous moments on the tour, in particular when he crashed into his Welsh opposite Jamie Roberts during the Millennium Stadium Test last November. Roberts fractured his skull. Mortlock was sent into la-la land. But that did not deter Mortlock, and he was as enthusiastic as ever when the Brumbies asked him to be their No 12 this year. It worked brilliantly in Dunedin with his poise, power and persistence winning the Brumbies the match. Mortlock was without doubt the stand-out player of the first round.
Not so encouraging was the new SANZAR referees' merit system, which this season has seen an end to matches having neutral referees. The new system puts too much pressure on the referee. A merit system has merit if it is simply that. It is not when you have referees from the same town as one of the playing teams. It was not surprising that the New Zealand media were soon complaining about a NSW referee Stu Dickinson in charge of a NSW away game.
Dickinson is one of the better international referees but he became an open target for criticism when a Waratahs try by Lachie Turner should have been called back because of a knock-on, and a Hurricanes try was disallowed because of a dubious forward pass. The Hurricanes crowd were not impressed, nor were those in Dunedin when another Australian referee, James Leckie, was in charge of the Brumbies-Highlanders game. Players, coaches and the crowd will only take a match seriously when neutral referees are appointed.